It doesn’t matter how many American athletes will earn medals, who'll get shut out or whether there'll be any soon-to-be-legendary, come-from-behind wins on Korea's snow-packed mountains. When the XXIII Winter Olympic Games commence on February 9, they’ll automatically make history. That's because for the first time in Olympic history, two openly gay Americans are representing the United States abroad.
Kenworthy was no stranger to this atmosphere. Action sports particularly market themselves as disciplines of fearlessness, risk-seeking and strength—traits crucial to building a hyper-masculine identity. This year, Kenworthy’s ticket to the Olympics wasn’t punched until late January in Mammoth, California, the final stop of the U.S. Olympic Trials. Home to snowboard heavyweight and two-time Olympic gold medalist Shaun White, Mammoth, with its supersized jumps and acres of vertical terrain, is Mecca for action sports culture.
"If [players] believed men could control themselves in an environment where you’re naked, they wouldn’t be afraid of a gay man.”
But Kenworthy’s rise doesn’t simply prove that gay athletes can draw sponsorships and fans. Rather, it signals that the definition of masculinity is evolving altogether. “Gay athletes show you can be an elite athlete, have an amazing body, be strong, physical, powerful and quick—all these things we associate with masculinity—and you can be attracted to other men,” says Ben Carrington, an associate professor of sociology and journalism at the University of Southern California. “Although that seems to not be that profound of a statement, it is. Our gender performance is underpinned by sexuality. When that sexuality changes, it changes how our gender is performed. It causes us to rethink what it means to be a man.”
With two openly gay men representing the United States in two of the Games' marquee sports, the Olympics are doing what they’re meant to do: break boundaries and bring people together. But the culture in professional American sports leagues is noticeably different. Indeed, American sports have welcomed some openly gay players in the past. But not many.
An emphasis on masculinity—as defined by brute strength, competitiveness and domination—runs through all sports, professional or otherwise, but team sports seem to be a stronger breeding ground for it. As a place where young boys learn a specific representation of masculinity early on, this world continues to influence men throughout adulthood. The depth at which organized sports permeate our culture—from being the home of "locker room talk" to being a platform for political protest—leaves many athletes, and gay ones at that, feeling uncomfortable with presenting themselves as anything but the status quo.
“It makes you feel that being gay makes you weak. Athletes never want to come off as being weak.”
“Sports are profoundly homosocial spaces,” says Carrington. “They are spaces where men engage in activities with other men. That’s one of the contradictions of mainstream sports. Almost to compensate for the fact that men are engaging in physical activities with other men you have to over-perform your heterosexuality to assure all the guys that you’re straight.”
Like Kenworthy, fans and media have supported Rippon, especially after news circulated that Rippon had declined an offer to meet Vice President Mike Pence, a career supporter of anti-gay policies, ahead of the Winter Games. Though he initially feared biased judges would score him lower after his coming out, such has proved not to be the case. Bolstered by his new freedom and ability to focus, Rippon says he actually skates better now. “The notion that being gay would make you a weaker athlete is wrapped up in sexism,” says Rippon. “That’s a mindset people need to break out of.”
Beyond the fear of being ostracized either in the locker room or by outsiders, however, is the fear that disrupting the firmly held assumptions of how manhood intertwines with sports would rock its institutional foundations and, thus, put your job at risk. “On the pro level, people have these fears about money, losing their job, losing sponsorships,” says former offensive tackle Ryan O’Callaghan, who played for the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs before coming out in 2017, after he'd retired. While his own reasons for not coming out while playing in the NFL were more familial than professional, he acknowledges the money factor may be holding back others in his situation. “There’s no guaranteed money. It’s a job.” But athletes like Rippon, Rogers and Kenworthy have proved that, at least in some circles, being a globally recognized gay athlete is not only possible, but also profitable and most important, increasingly accepted. When Rogers came out to his team, his fear of being ostracized in the locker room proved to be unfounded. He remembers the small but profound ways his teammates showed him they accepted him. “Landon [Donovan] was trying to plan a team night out just for the players,” Rogers recalls. “He wrote, 'No wives, girlfriends or boyfriends.' That stood out to me.”
More progressive attitudes are now pouring into college sports, where the stakes may not yet include losing multimillion dollar sponsorship deals. Before the start of the 2017 college football season, Butler University linebacker Xavier Colvin, son of two-time Super Bowl champion Rosevelt Colvin, came out to his teammates. Only a sophomore, he's thoughtful about how being an out, gay athlete influences our idea of manhood. “We have a fragile definition of what masculinity is,” he says. “My definition is it’s based upon how you handle yourself, regardless of who you sleep with. It’s about taking care of business no matter what you have going on.”
Colvin pauses, choosing his words before saying them with conviction. “You do what you’re supposed to be doing and have some integrity. That’s what being a great man—or a great human—is all about.”